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Curation, Collections & Cabinets of Curiosity


As we tread water in the flood of information being written into the Network through real-time interfaces, we see the word ‘curation‘ on the lips the VCs and the entrepreneurial classes. The problem was succinctly stated by Clay Shirky as: not one of information overload, but rather of filter failure. The filter of the moment is some form of curation. The firehose of information will be reduced to a rational and manageable collection through a semantic algorithm or a collaborative group filter. The search for the perfect curatorial tool is on– we want the thing that turns our infinite reading list into a prioritized, relevant, manageable collection of consumables.

butterfly collection

Collections can take a number of forms. For instance, varieties of butterflies can be put into a frame. Here we don’t look for a rational taxonomy, instead we desire beauty, rarity and narrative in each member of the collection.


Collections can be healthy or neurotic, the Collyer brothers obsessively collected the ordinary detritus of our culture and stacked it in their house. In the end, they accumulated 130 tons of stuff.


The cabinet of curiosity was an encyclopedic collection of items on the boundary of scientific classification systems. The criteria for inclusion included the rarity, the utterly foreign, and especially the example that broke the rules of classification.


Joseph Cornell made an art form of creating collections that embodied contradiction and the irrational. Where scientists worked diligently in creating a rational taxonomy of the natural world, Cornell created an organized presentation of the unconscious.


That filtering tool that we’re searching for seems to produce a rational collection of items based on relevance and similarity. A firehose of items is categorized and prioritized, similar items are reduced to their exemplars, placed on a tray, and made ready for consumption as a collection of hors d’oeuvrers. The items in a cabinet of curiosity, as they are not easily categorized, would probably slip through the cracks of these collections.

The most common filtering tool is popularity. The best tools of this kind attempt to find popularity before it is too popular. Malcolm Gladwell exposed this pattern of meme acceleration through taste-making nodes of a social network. The tools currently available in online social networks, the retweet and the like are the most common accelerants. Discovery of early signs of velocity is the bread and butter of the news business. Once something is truly popular, we become like Yogi Berra, and quip that “nobody goes there anymore, because it’s too crowded.” In the financial world, this might be called selling on valuation. A stock that reaches its potential and now lacks upside, is sold in favor of a new stock showing signs of velocity to the upside.

Sometimes what you want to locate isn’t what’s the most popular, but rather the edge of the debate. The point where the categories break down and the subject of the discussion hasn’t been decided one way or the other. The purpose here isn’t to read what other people disagree about, it’s to be given an interface into the fray itself. Here we aren’t looking for content about some topic, instead we’re looking for a bi-directional connection to the organic thing itself.

The topology of the Network can be expressed in a variety of lexicons. Popularity follows a focused reading model. But as we begin to think of a real-time, read/write, two-way interface on to the Network, we look for a map of argument, the swarm of attention around an undecided direction, the political discourse of everyday life.

Published in collaboration culture desire difference economics identity markets real time web social graph

One Comment

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